Chicago River Day and the Summer Challenge

The river provides critical habitat for all sorts of animals from migratory birds to beavers, mink, turtles and over 75 species of fish. It's health is rebounding after years of abuse, but litter remains a stubborn problem. Studies show areas without litter deter future littering, so one of the most important ways to deter littering is to clean it up. Every year since 1992, Friends give the Chicago and Calumet Rivers a good spring cleaning on Chicago River Day, part of our effort to create a Litter Free Chicago River.

 May 8, 2021 was our 29th annual
Chicago River Day.

Our public lands are utilized now more then ever before, but unfortunately the pandemic has also caused an increase in litter. Since cleanups are outdoors and generally spread out, they are an activity still available during this health crisis, where social distancing is critical.

From Lake County to Calumet, worked together, but safely apart, at city parks, forest preserves, neighborhood blocks, and businesses to improve the health of the watershed by removing harmful and ugly litter, immediately improve our environment for people, plants and animals, work to bring about long-term improvements in the health of the Chicago River system, have fun and get inspired by our fellow volunteers seeing the positive impact we make when we work together. Together we cleaned over 70 locations with over 2,000 volunteers!

We feature a river animal each year to put a face to the name "wildlife," and help us to connect to the many different animals who rely on us to care for and protect this important river system. To celebrate the creation of the Watershed Council, and illustrate the interconnectedness of the land and water, this year's featured animal is the American mink. To learn more about the mink check out our River Life story on them from the River Reporter, and learn all about all the other mammals who call the river home in the About the River pages.


The Summer Challenge

Last year in response to the pandemic, we reinvented Chicago River Day as the Summer Challenge, encouraging people to pick up litter independently or in small groups. You were incredible, adapted to answer the call, rolled up your sleeves and got out on your own to clean up your street, parks and communities. For many, this simple activity is a way to show your commitment to your community, do something positive during a difficult time, and demonstrate your dedication to creating a Litter Free Chicago River system. Thank you.

Many of you are now organizing independent cleanups, creating an amazing momentum which is making a real difference. Let's keep it up. We will continue the Summer Challenge this year by encouraging individual cleanups, advising and supporting your small group cleanups, and continuing to help new groups utilize the Litter Free Chicago River Toolkit. To respond to this increased demand, we are working set up Litter Free Supply Stations where groups can borrow supplies. Stay tuned for details.

Take the Summer Challenge!

  1. Review these important safety precautions. Wear gloves, sturdy shoes, and a tie your hair back or wear a hat. A litter grabber and bucket will make your cleanup safer and easier.
  2. Pin your cleanup to the Litter Free map. This is a really cool new way to see who's helping and where. You can post photos, tell us about your day and encourage your fellow volunteers!
  3. Tell us about your experience. Take this short survey to tell us how many people took the Summer Challenge, where you cleaned up, what you found and your ideas to create a Litter Free Chicago River system. Gathering this information helps us to fully understand our collective impact, and provides qualitative data we can use to impact policy and sustain funding for this critical work. 

*** Consider planning your own small group cleanup for the Summer Challenge using the Litter Free Chicago River Toolkit. Friends can support your group by offering guidance, supplies and equipment.


Litter is one of the most stubborn environmental problems we face. Working together with amazing friends, members, volunteers, partners like REI, Shedd Aquarium, Waste Management, and Loyola University's Dr. Tim Hoellein, and the visionary steadfast support of the Mars Wrigley Foundation, we can create a Litter Free Chicago River.